In 1950, Baton Rouge's consolidation of city and parish government was considered all the rage in progressive circles, a way to make public services more efficient and provide a broader tax base. Lafayette government made the same decision in 1996.
Are the political cards no longer aligned?
In East Baton Rouge, a large parish where there were other cities and ultimately other school districts, the forces of separation appear on the march with a renewed petition drive to create a "city of St. George" in the largely white southeastern neighborhoods.
In Lafayette Parish, the defeat of two major tax initiatives is also calling into question consolidation, because the "consolidatees" are voting heavily against parishwide propositions backed by voters in the city limits.
The big school tax increase failed last year in Lafayette, and the library system in April lost a 1.61-mill tax that is a significant part of its funding.
As in Baton Rouge, where criticism has mounted against public service taxes, the Lafayette library system was criticized for carrying a large fund balance. Ultimately, it's far cheaper to save up money and "pay as you go" for building and maintaining libraries. But that's a hard sell politically.
In The Current website, developer Kevin Blanchard noted the city-parish divide in the returns, with those closest to downtown voting for the millage and the anti-tax vote rising on the peripheries, closer to the crawfish ponds, as he said.
"The city of Lafayette needs the same autonomy over decisions about its tax dollars that the smaller municipalities have," Blanchard argued. "Parish residents deserve the clarity as well."
He is not a voice for Lafayexit just yet, saying that the community needs a fuller discussion of its needs. In Lafayette, libraries and schools are run parish-wide, so "fixing the (city-parish) charter won’t shortcut us to an agreement on how to fund school facilities." But he is also right that anti-tax political action committees, often with secret donors, are corrupting the community dialogue as much at the local level as in Washington, D.C.
In Baton Rouge, the renewed St. George agitation drew criticism as before from the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.
BRAC's analysis suggests that the projections of tax revenues used to sell a separate city are not only flawed but downright ridiculous: "The proponents’ projected sales tax revenue estimate of $53.4 million alone is overestimated by roughly $20 million, if one compares data from the City-Parish Finance Department and the proposed city’s proponents. This 37 percent error calls into question the reliability of the budget plan prepared for the incorporation."
Any new city, and then a new school district which is the apparent ultimate goal of St. George, would inevitably require substantial new millages.
Property taxes, which in Louisiana are generally low, are oddly hated by suburban voters compared to sales taxes, which hit them much harder but are less noticeable because they are paid bit by bit.
But deconsolidation, a local version of Brexit, might be the result of a St. George movement.
"An incorporation of a large section of East Baton Rouge’s unincorporated area would weaken and threaten the combined form of city-parish government," BRAC said. "The city-parish form of government provides shared and spread risk across a larger population, which has kept costs lower and provided greater access to services across the parish as a whole."
But in Baton Rouge, as in Lafayette, the closer you get to the Ascension and Livingston lines, the far greater is the proportion of anti-tax precincts. Businesses are probably right to be worried that a city-parish government without St. George's precincts might be much more prone to raising tax rates of all sorts.
In both cities, as Blanchard said, we need a discussion. But in politics, the something-for-nothing argument is always a powerful one; as social media posts and secretive PACs spread disinformation, the community basis for the discussion is eroded, click by click.
Email Lanny Keller at email@example.com.